I grew up in Belfast about a mile away from Van Morrison, and as a near-contemporary, I’ve had the good fortune to watch him perform live for nearly thirty-five years.As a performer, Van is unpredictable – sublime one night, cantankerous and unengaged in another, you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get. But as the years have passed, one thing has remained constant: when he is in the mood, this man – with only average instrumental skills, a less than melodic voice, and the physical presence of a pile of coal – can produce music of such sheer transcendence that time seems to stop, until he decides it can begin again.
Van performed here in Boston last night, and as the set was mostly a re-working of his 1968 album ‘Astral Weeks’, it provided a great opportunity to reflect on how someone so idiosyncratically stubborn, so inured to fashion, trends and public demands has managed to stay on top – on his terms – over a career spanning 45 years.
The single most striking change over that time – a change that began around 1980 when he moved out of the Brown-Eyed Girl / Gloria / Moondance pop-influenced phase and back to his roots as a rhythm and blues singer – is that Van is no longer a performer in the sense that say, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Neil Young or Bob Dylan are performers. For decades now, Van has essentially been an arranger: not just in the narrow musical sense of ‘arranging’ the numbers, but in the wider sense of constantly, insistently and precisely guiding his team of musicians (a rolling group of between 6 and fifteen people, depending on the needs of the set), live and in real time.
Watching Van again last night, I was struck less frequently by his personal direct contribution to the music (though he did contribute mightily, most effectively on harmonica) than I was by the way in which he controlled, managed and directed the musicians around him, using hand signals, nods, facial gestures and shouted instructions to generate the hills, valleys and peaks of the musical landscape he was constructing.
Compared to the brash, arrogant, preening ‘Van the Man’ of say, 1976 in his performance of ‘Caravan’ at The Band’s farewell ‘Last Waltz’ concert, or on ‘Live at Montreux 1974’ (both magnificent performances), the Van Morrison of 2009 is a big dog turned leader, a once- solo performer who now leads a high performing team, a maverick turned guru (though he would hate the word).
Van never lets the crowd forget who’s headlining the show: his exits in particular are, like those of James Brown before him, designed to make that abundantly clear. But tellingly, after he leaves the stage the band always get their time in the sun – a few minutes to take the set through to its final conclusion, unsupervised, as if to say “Hey, you did good. Go for it.”
In business, some people become hobbled because of their early success as individual high-performers – they get trapped in their identity as ‘stars’. The big dog in sales, or the prize-winning research scientist, or the ground-breaking advertising maven gets star-struck, unable to yield the spotlight, craving the encore. They want to continue being the sole focus of the adoring crowd.
Can you move from being ‘just’ a performer to being an arranger?